Got to speak Japanese with George Takei!



George Takei came to Edmonton last week to give a talk as part of a speaker series that our public library (EPL) has been running.   The talk itself was primarily a reflection on several chapters of his life, including being sent to a internment camp after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour–this period actually began with his family living in a barnyard horse stall while the camps were being constructed.

He then went on to weave his personal story of challenge and triumph, living most of his life feeling like he had to hide his sexuality, with the larger swaths of American social change, including the eventual recognition of same-sex marriage.

Having said that, he did manage to weave in a several lighter moments of laughter–some of the Q&A also got him into Star Trek trivia, and talking about connecting with people over social media.

Some of the themes were quite timely because the day before George spoke, the Canadian Prime Minister had offered a historic apology to the LGBTQ2 community in Canada.

After the talk was over, I had the good fortune of attending a smaller reception; since the line to speak to him wasn’t too long, I decided that I couldn’t pass up the chance—but what to ask?

As it got closer to my turn, it suddenly dawned on me to ask if he spoke Japanese at all. When I asked my question in English,  he responded in Japanese, asking if I could speak Japanese—- when I did, we had a nice conversation that lasted a few minutes.

In an interesting bit of serendipity, the woman behind me had also been to Japan and she too took the opportunity to speak with George in Japanese– when it was over, we got to chatting, and her father said “this is so interesting– I’d only ever really heard my daughter’s Japan story, so it was interesting to hear some of yours as well”.

Afterwards, it struck me that there was something quite poetic about his choice of words: “my Japan story”. But it’s true, though, isn’t it? When we learn another language, we really are penning our own ‘______ story’ in the context of that language and culture.

Anyway– a very neat experience for sure!


Muffins for Granny— Residential School Legacy in Canada

I just watched Muffins for Granny, an extremely powerful documentary film consisting of interviews with seven elders who were survivors of residential schools in Canada.  (available at Edmonton Public Library).  Every time I learn more about this part of Canadian history, I feel an ever-deepening sense of sadness and disbelief that our government deliberately set out in this direction for so long.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued their final report earlier this summer; watching this documentary, it strikes me that “Truth” definitely does need to come before “Reconciliation”—as a non-indigenous person, I’m probably not alone in feeling a need to learn so much more about the history of my own country, and how much of it continues to repeat and evolve into more phenomena that should horrify every citizen.

“Residential schools also known as industrial or boarding schools refer to a variety of institutions which have existed in Canada. The schools were established to assimilate Aboriginal children into white society. Aboriginal children were discouraged from speaking their own language and practicing their native traditions or else suffer punishment. Beyond the emotional abuse of being taken from their families, many children experienced physical and/or sexual abuse. Estimates show that 24 to 42 per cent of children in some schools died of tuberculosis infection. By learning English and adopting Christianity and Canadian customs, the government hoped that the children would pass their adopted lifestyle on to the next generation and native traditions would be abolished in a few generations. “(original link is now broken, there is another reference here and here— or you can spend an afternoon exploring titles at the Edmonton Public Library)

CBC Radio Interview:

Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners

I don’t count myself as a hyperpolyglot(!), but I can definitely agree that the key to successful language learning is simply finding a way to enjoy the process.  Judging from the book review in The Economist, this seems to be part of the message of Michael Erard’s new book, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.

from the review: “Hyperpolyglots may begin with talent, but they aren’t geniuses. They simply enjoy tasks that are drudgery to normal people. The talent and enjoyment drive a virtuous cycle that pushes them to feats others simply shake their heads at, admiration mixed with no small amount of incomprehension.”

If you’re an active language learner, are you on an upward spiral, or are you stuck in the language-learning doldrums?  What kinds of things do you enjoy doing that other people might think of as ‘drudgery’?

[*After reading the review, I submitted a suggestion to my local library and they’ve already agreed to order the book.  I honestly can’t say it often enough: I love the Edmonton Public Library!  (update Jan 16/2012:  the book is now in the epl database]

French Gestures (A.I.M.) and Li Yang’s Crazy English: building confidence for beginners

At the outset, I need to say that I am a *huge* fan of the Edmonton Public Library.  For the most part, my EPL use is limited to requesting holds online and picking them up at the branch near my office.  A couple of days ago, however, I tried something different and attended a free event at the Capilano EPL Branch.  The name of the session was “Learning French with Gestures”—as a card-carrying language geek, how could I possibly resist?

The session was basically an introduction to a way of teaching French to beginners called the Accelerative Integrated Method (AIM).  The core of the program concentrates on using a system of pared-down language, accompanied by specific gestures for about 700 key words.   Our introductory session was facilitated by an Edmonton Public School FSL teacher and one of the EPL’s community librarians.

The participants were a mix of adults, children and a few school teachers.  After the session, we were given a sample DVD that shared the background of the AIM/gesture method, as well as a few testimonials.  Most of the video material appears to be available online (start with the video below and work from there…)

I really enjoyed the session– it’s not hard to see why this method would work for engaging beginning students.  As much as I loved my high school French teacher’s classes, I think this would have been right up my alley when I was originally starting to learn French.  The facilitator mentioned that a similar system of gestures is being developed for ESL and Spanish as a second language as well.

As we progressed through the session, one thought that came to mind was how gestures are also a part of how Li Yang teaches English in China.  For the uninitiated, “Crazy English” is a phenomenon that most young people in China have at least heard of— Li Yang encourages learners to read out loud (very loudly) as much as possible, and the pronunciation gestures are a way to aid students in mastering English vowel sounds not commonly found in Chinese.

Confidence as a critical base to early success

Overall, however, one of the key aspirations of Li Yang’s Crazy English is *very* similar to the AIM method, and that is to instill confidence in beginners.   If you listen to the kinds of things that Li Yang says in his public lectures, it’s fascinating how he blends the virtues of being a so-called “internationalist” with a strong sense of Chinese patriotism. In the video below, a good chunk of his Chinese ‘banter’ between English phrases is aimed at encouraging learners and playing down the anxiety that some learners might feel when speaking with native speakers of English.

Regardless of how you spin it, I think that there’s an argument to be made that the biggest challenge in beginning any new language is not memorizing all the new rules, but that the exercise puts us completely out of our zones of comfort, and it becomes easy to shut down and mentally ‘check out’ of class time.  Any tool that can keep the energy level up, and keep people communicating with smiles on their faces is a good one in my books— much more valuable than ‘clear grammar explanations’ is the caring, encouraging and inspiring teacher that can help create a safe environment where  students can step out of their shells.

I would even go so far as to argue that the key difference between a beginner and a low-intermediate speaker of a second language has less to do with comprehension and production, than it does with the person’s comfort level in the ‘skin’ of their new language.  Once that is done, then most folks are well on their way to entering the long-haul of self-directed language learning through the intermediate to advanced stages….